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July 11, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners

by Baseball Prospectus

Cleveland Indians

  • Hey Now!: C.C. Sabathia will be the lone Indian at next Tuesday's All-Star Game in Chicago. Sabathia has quietly put together a solid season as the Indians' ace, with an ERA of 3.23 in 117 innings, averaging just under seven innings a start. Support-Neutral stats place him squarely among the top 10 starters in the American League, worth over two wins above replacement, just ahead of media darling Jamie Moyer. Meanwhile, Milton Bradley has had a season right out of Bernie Williams' peak--hitting for averge, drawing walks, and providing a nice boost of power. Bradley didn't finish in the top six of the player voting, though, ranking behind at least five All-Stars and Rocco Baldelli.
    
                AVG   OBP   SLG    EqA    VORP
    Bradley    .336  .440  .518   .342    38.3
    Baldelli   .309  .335  .446   .278    16.8
    
    
    It's something we've said before, but it's worth pointing out again; major-league baseball players are the best in the world at playing baseball. They're not necessaily the best in the world at evaluating baseball players. They'll continue to be a part of the All-Star process, but it's not necessarily an improvement over the old way of doing things. Any electorate that would submit more votes for Rocco Baldelli than for Bradley deserves to have its judgment questioned.

  • Saving the Day: The Indians are far from a good team this year, largely because they don't score runs and, other than Sabathia, their starters put them behind in too many games. But quietly, they've assembled one of the better bullpens in the American League, third in the circuit in Adjusted Runs Allowed and Adjusted Runs Prevented, and sixth in relief ERA. Those impressive numbers are weighed down a bit by the brutal performances of the many part-timers the Tribe has used this year; of pitchers with at least 10 relief innings, Terry Mulholland has the highest ERA at 4.09, and only Jose Santiago has a negative ARP (-2.4 runs in 16 2/3 innings).

    They've done it the old-fashioned way: using failed starters and retreads. Danys Baez washed out of the rotation before moving to the closer role last year. He's pitched much better than his 3.43 ERA would indicate: 10 of the 18 runs he's allowed this season came in two outings totalling 1/3 of an inning against the Mariners and A's, respectively. Since the latter of those two, Baez has allowed just four runs, three earned, in 21 innings, striking out 32 men.

    David Riske has been even better as his setup man, with 43 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 40 2/3 innings. Riske's newfound command-he had 110 strikeouts and 59 walks in 92 2/3 innings before 2003-has made him one of the top ten relievers in the American League (11.6 ARP). Thirty-year-old Jason Boyd has resurfaced to provide good low-leverage innings, and two pitchers no longer in the bullpen, Billy Traber (Buffalo's rotation) were very valuable during their stays there.

  • Keep Hope Alive: About a decade ago, Bill James concluded that the record of a team's Triple-A club was a leading indicator of whether that team would improve or decline in the following season. This confirmed something we all sense intuitively: that a team with a good farm system has a lot to look forward to.

    Indian fans, rejoice: help is on the way. The Bisons lead the International League's North Division with a 50-38 record, and the Double-A Akron Aeros have Eastern League's best record at 57-34. While it's no fun watching the Tribe slog through their worst campaign since before the Jake was built, it's clear from the performance of the farm system that things are going to get better soon.

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • MicroStudy: Despite ranking just 12th in the majors in Adjusted Runs Prevented, Dodgers' closer Eric Gagne is on pace to have perhaps the most dominant season for a reliever in the history of the game. In 44 1/3 innings, Gagne has whiffed a mind-boggling 76 batters while allowing just 34 men to reach base in the process--giving him a strikeout rate of better than 15 per nine innings and WHIP of 0.76. Were the 2003 season to end today, both of these figures would set National League records.
    
    Pitcher             Year     SO/9      IP
    -----------------------------------------
    ERIC GAGNE          2003*   15.43    44.1
    Billy Wagner        1999    15.01    74.1
    Armando Benitez     1999    14.77    78.0
    Billy Wagner        1998    14.55    60.0
    Billy Wagner        1997    14.38    66.1
    Byung-Hyun Kim      2000    14.14    70.2
    Rob Dibble          1992    14.08    70.1
    Matt Mantei         1999    13.71    65.0
    Rob Dibble          1991    13.55    82.1
    Randy Johnson       2001    13.41   249.2
    
    
    Pitcher             YEAR     WHIP      IP
    -----------------------------------------
    ERIC GAGNE          2003*    0.76    44.1
    Billy Wagner        1999     0.79    74.1
    George McQuillan    1907     0.80    41.0
    Christy Mathewson   1909     0.83   275.1
    Greg Maddux         1995     0.84   209.2
    George Bradley      1880     0.84   196.0
    Bryan Harvey        1993     0.84    69.0
    Christy Mathewson   1908     0.84   390.2
    Babe Adams          1924     0.85    40.0
    Mike Jackson        1994     0.85    42.1
    Henry Boyle         1884     0.85   150.0
    
    
    But are Gagne's talents being used in an optimal fashion? After all, if a pitcher can be this dominant while appearing in 80 innings as a closer, why couldn't he be half as dominant--with a K rate in a 7.00s and walk rate in a 2.00s--while pitching 200 innings as a starter? The best reliever is always less valuable than a middle-of-the-road starter, right?

    Well, no. At least not at the extremes, where Gagne has been operating for the last season-and-a-half. You see, for all the hand-wringing that statheads take part in over reliever usage patterns, occasionally a pitcher will be used in the manner that is most optimal for his team. And Jim Tracy's use of Gagne this season is one of those rare occasions.

    • Ahead by 2 runs or fewer: 23 appearances
    • Ahead by 3 or more runs: 9 appearances
    • Tied or losing: 5 appearances

    As you can see, Gagne's appearances closely match the stathead ideal: lots of close games where strikeouts and a lack of baserunners are at a premium, and very few appearances where just racking up the save is the goal. This is made possible, of course, by a Brooklyn Superbas...I mean, Los Angeles Dodgers offense that scores about as often as Nate Silver. Gagne has appeared in exactly one game over the last month-and-a-half where the Boys in Blue have put up more than five runs on the board.

    If we could make one criticism of Gagne's usage pattern this season it's that he's not used enough when finally brought in the game. Only five of his appearances have lasted more than an inning, and only two of those were for two full innings or more. It's great that manager Jim Tracy has been unafraid to use his closer in almost every tight situation this year; we just wish he'd either bring him in a little bit earlier, or leave him out there a little bit longer to maximize his value.

    Here at Baseball Prospectus, we're often quick to deride the value of a dominant closer. If a pitcher is really that good, we argue, then why isn't he appearing in twice the innings? Relievers are fungible. Get someone else out there for the ninth, and get this Dominant Closer Guy out there for innings one through eight.

    This is not the case with Eric Gagne, however. Gagne has been used in a near-optimal fashion in 2003, often when the game is on the line. His 43 appearances ties him for fourth in the league, and he's showing no signs of tiring. If there's one reliever who might seriously deserve to be a part of the Cy Young discussion at the end of the year, it's likely to be Gagne.

Seattle Mariners

  • Walking Wounded: The Mariners just placed Greg Colbrunn on the 15-day DL for wrist problems, retroactive to July 3, after activating him on June 29. Meanwhile, Carlos Guillen hasn't played since July 1 due to wrist problems. And John Olerud is bothered by a sore hamstring, which has meant a lot of John Mabry's stellar defense...wait, no, that's Steller's sea cow-style defense at first, Mark McLemore's rangeless, weak-armed play at shortstop, and a marked decrease in the team's defensive ability. Fortunately, the team finishes up the first half against the Devil Rays, and then can heal over the All Star break. At the same time, the injuries have exposed the team's appalling lack of depth in the minor leagues: they have no one able to competently sub into the middle infield, or even 1st base. And with players injured but not on the DL, the Mariners currently feature the worst bench in the majors:

    • Willie Bloomquist, right-handed hitter who doesn't hit much, can play middle infield, current role is pinch-runner for Edgar Martinez.
    • Luis Ugueto, switch-hitter who can't hit, can play middle infield, current role is backup pinch runner
    • Whichever catcher is not starting that day
    • Two injured guys who can't play

    Worst bench ever. Needless to say, I was on the Internet within minutes, registering my disappointment throughout the universe.

  • Watch closely: Gil Meche got off to a great start, and still sneaks into the top 30 starters in Support Neutral Won-Loss. And yet...Meche has thrown 107 innings so far this year. Last year, his first back from a couple of shoulder surgeries, he threw 65 innings in San Antonio, and before that you have to go back to 2000 before he went down, when he threw about 100 innings in the whole season before the team shut him down for good. You have to go back four years before you find a full season where Meche pitched over 110 innings.

    Meche is a hard-working, determined guy, who's worked his butt off in rehab and then when he had to do it all again, worked his butt off in rehab again to get where he is. He's been on a short leash this year, averaging under a hundred pitches a start, without any stretches even where he ran around 110 for a couple starts.

    He's been complaining about continued shoulder soreness. Coincidentally, he hasn't looked as good. The strikeouts have been missing from his game. Against the bad-hitting and Huckabay-frustrating Athletics July 1st, he got only two punch-outs, and in Texas July 6, he went only four innings, getting two strikeouts while giving up two taters, making four low-K starts in a row, following a June 15 gem against powerhouse Atlanta.

    The All Star break might be just what the doctor ordered for Meche, but it would be wise for the team to be extremely paranoid with Meche and shut him down if they have to, replacing him with one of their bumper crop of pitchers (or even just move Rafael Soriano from bullpen to rotation). Meche has shown he's got ability and can be a great pitcher, and now it's up to the Mariners to try and keep him healthy so he can help the team now and in the future.

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